Rene — Jacques Ranciére interview with Yan Ciret

Topic(s): Philosophy | Comments Off on Rene — Jacques Ranciére interview with Yan Ciret

Jacques Ranciére interview with Yan Ciret
In your new book, Le partage du sensible, you radically undermine the concepts of modernity and the avant-garde. In what way is this structure which was conceived in the 19C by Baudelaire and taken up by everyone from Walter Benjamin to the Situationsits and Tel Quel invalid?
I am not interested in some battle of the ancients and moderns. My target is the notion of modernity which is used as an explanatory category by both the supporters and the detractors of contemporary art. This introduces a problematic relation between the course of History and the development of art. First of all, it tendentiously reduces artistic transformations to one or two exemplary ruptures––for example, pictorial abstraction and the readymade, which are particular forms of a paradigm that is in fact much more general than that. It then makes these artificial breaks appear to embody the accomplishment of some political task or historial destiny. To me this way of reasoning implies a general onology in which there is some great master signifier capable of governing each age. This concept has ended up drowning art in a pathetic melodrama that mixes the Kantian sublime with the Murder of the Father, the taboo on representation with the technology of mechanical reproduction and the death of the gods with the extermination of the Jews in Europe. I wanted to get away from all this pathos and examine the specific functioning of art rather than the metaphysical moving spirit of the age.
How do you explain that this modernist pathos coincided with such an intense burst of energy, and that the 20th century looks set to be remembered as one of the golden ages for the arts, with a starburst of creativity epitomized by people such as Joyce, Stravinsky, De Kooning, Picasso and Eisentstein?
It wasn’t the pathos of modernism that opened up these infinite possibilities for art but the destruction of the categories and hierarchies of art’s representational system. I have tried to contextualize tjos aggiornamento as the effect of a new regime of art, understood here as the set of relations between seeing, maing and saying. It was this transformation that made the works you describe possible and which allows for new, untried combinations as a result of the opening of frontiers between the different arts or between artistic forms and the forms of life, between pure art and applied art, art and non-art, narration and description or symbol, etc. We must be careful not to try to shoehorn these new forms of artistic visibility into some grand global signifier like modernity.
Yes, modernism has always been based on rupture, the cult of the new and of progress wither political or aesthetic. The primal scene of this modernism was the parricde and regicide of the French Revolution. Don’t you think that in the current melancholy of the avant-gardes we are seeing a loss of contact with that scene?
I don’t think that the transformations of art should be conceived solely in terms of that founding regicide/parricide. Ever since Romanticism, aesthetic novelty has always gone hand in hand with the reinterpretation of the old. Ruptures have always been reprises, reinscriptions, and also a way of bringing into art things that lay outside it: anthropological objects, popular images, natural phenomena, etc. The new is not detached from history. We need to move away fom the idea of the end of history. For two centuries now art has been seeing a constant questioning of the frontiers between what is new and what is old and rearranging images, adding elements from non-artistic categories and recycling clichés.
So you don’t believe in a “theory of exception” (1) which posites that a radically innovative and singular piece of art can displace the artistic field, open up an unforeseen breach?
No, change is the result of a thousand creeping encroachments. Art history is always retrospective reconstitution centering on big, major ruptures. As if Kandinsky or Malevich, or even a single painting, had been revolutions in the history of humanity. In the case of Kandinsky, the colored signs on the canvas are taken not tondicate any known thing out there in the world. But this de-identification had already been practiced at the end of the 19th century by the theoreticians of Symbolism who read figurative paintings––Gauguin’s, for example ––as abstract combinations of forms and signs. So these “events” need to be reassessed within a broader context, rather than being concentrated in a few major breakthroughs. Half the people who write about modern art seem to think that Duchamp’s Large Glass cut human history in two. But the large glass need to be seen in the context of a whole series of transformations in the ideas and practice of art, and in the relations between pure and applied art and non-art. It is wrong to squeeze a whole aesthetic paradigm into a few great figures, endowing with a metaphysical pathos as the agents of destiny.
The antithesis of the “theory of exceptions” is to be found in your book Aux bords du politique in the form of a “community of equals.” This reminds me of the “literary communism” discussed by Jean-Luc Nancy. But how would such a community pan out in terms of the aesthetic system?
If there is a community of equals in art, this does not mean the constitution of collective subjects corresponding to real groups. In politics, the subjects of such a community of equals are, in the first instance, the actual forms of utterance and manifestation. It’s the same in art. If there is equality, then this is embodied in a kind of anonymity of art. It is bound up with the way works of art are inscribed in a world of equality. By that I mean a world where the frontier between art and non-art is never fixed but is instead constantly being retraced. Just as we redraw the lines of differentiation and separation between politics and what I call the police, so art will commit multiple transgressions with regard to the modes of the aestheticization of life, but also to the fundamentalist criteria of the separation of genres. But these are modest transgressions that will not lay claim to “great exception” status. In art a community of equalis would be a community of acts that create these slight differences, a line of demarcation that would have no institutional criteria of recognition.
I think that today there are two dominant artistic figures. One, which you identify in a text for the journal Trafic. “Fiction de mémoire, à propos d’un film de Chris Marker,” is the figure of the Tomb, of mourning. Here we find the last texts written by Serge Daney and Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema. You call it the “poem of the poem.”This is a kind of funereal recapitulation of what has never been. On the other side, young artists who are grieving for that primal scene of rupture which I mentioned earlier, and who go through the motions of self-sacrifice, exhibit themselves as mrtyrs, with a wasting-away of the body. So are these the two major figures of art: the Tomb and the innocent victim?
These two figures are the same. At bottom, both are about the identification of art processes with signs written on the body. I would distinguish that from the primal scene of sacrifice. What I have always sought to do, with politics as with art, is to put such scenes to one side. It’s like at the end of Oedipus at Colonus, for democracy to be possible, we have to forget the whereabouts of of the sacrificial body. The two figures to identify are two figures of history. The “poem of the poem” goes back to Goethe’s Wihelm Meister, which Fridrich Schlegel read as a summation of all poetic figures. Chris Marker;s Le tombeau d’Alexandre and Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema are precisely that, forms of the reinscription or reordering of signs. The autobiographical art of the body is another kind of reading of history, through the transformation or use of a body. In both cases we have a way of presenting history that is given corporeal form, either by the literal display of the artist’s body, or by the constitution of a corpus of signs. But these are not necessarily figures of sacrifice or mouning. The artist’s work is identified with a process of history and memory. This has been a feature of art over the last two centuries. It begins with the Balzacian novel, in which a story unfolds from signs read on a body or on a wall, and continues through the Symbolist period and Surrealism, whichmanufactures the unconscious with bits of catalogue, then heads on onwards through Pop Art and so on. In Godard we have two things: a poetics of recombined images and floating signs, and then this funereal, very fin de siécle tone make up of bits of Heidegger, Debord and Baudrillard. It is not the pathos that makes the poetics of Marker’s Le tombeau d’Alexandre is a nostalgic film about the USSR, but it is not a film about the end of art.
This reminds me of Daney’s invocation of mourning as an antidote to the general positive thinking of the age. Don’t you think that it is in taking mouning all the way that we can avoid a return to reaction and regression. Note that Godard’s next film is called The Origin of the 21st Century.
For me, the work of memory and the work of mourning are not the same thing. I think we are neither in a state of total mourning or dereliction, not in the emergence of the new, in the messianic form characterstic of Benjamin’s thought. The new is created through small differences, through the appearance of new points of view, of novel combinations of objects and images. Of course, we are the heirs to a period when grandiose political or metapolitical ideas led to untold catastrophe and horror. Okay. But I don’t think that this political destiny should be confused with the general destiny of modernity, which would also embrace the figures of art. These figures come and go. What call the crisis of art stems from the fact that new systems are challenging a concept of modernity that clings to Malevich’s white square on a white ground. Artists are taking the arts outside their “specific” medium, mixing the resources and processes of art with forms from life. This makes the situation difficult to read, but then aren’t aesthetics and politics permanently in this state of indiscernibility?
Doesn’t this indiscernibility lead to what you have called the “glory of the ordinary,” a form of banality or anonymity that is very prominent in current art. Inscription takes place on bodie that are anonymous, almost without identity. This is art made with objects that were already there, with no particular qualities. Aren’t we seeing a new prominence of the ordinary?
Yes, this is constitutive of what I call the aesthetic regime of art, which came into being the the rejection of grand subjects. Already, with Romanticism there was a rediscovery of genre painting, of still life (Chardin). There is a poetry of the banal that connects with the glory of appearance in Hegel and the poetry of emptiness in Flaubert. This has stayed with us ever since, in Impressionism and in the mixing of circus, fairground and pantomime elements at the turn of the 20th century. Dadaism and Surrealism both have their strategies of banality. This invasion of the banal can be used in the manner of Flaubert, Kurt Schwitters or Andy Warhol. Today people lament the loss of distinctions. But it was only in the classical world of representation that artistic practices were separated, this being n terms of technique and according to the criteria of imitation. Under the current system of art, the separation occurs on the level of ways of being. What we call art is no longer defined on the basis of specific practices, but through the modality of the objects produced. A displacement has occurred, a different framing, a displacement of social practice twards the field of art. This, much more than the actual use of videos, installations and screens, is wha the modernists cannot stand. The reason being that it subverts the underhand equation make by moderism between the autonomy of art and the skill of the artist.
Don’t you think that artists are becoming mere operators within the current aesthetic system, while to a great extent new technologies are taking over the artistic subjectivization aspect?
Yes, the act that art is importing all these technologies means that sometimes the artist is no more than an operator. But this is no contemporary catastrophe. Rather, it stems from what has been a key component of art for two centuries now: art is defined as the equivalence between a form born of itself and the product of a calculation, the identification between a conscious process and an unconscious process. This was formulated by Schelling and Hegel at the beginning of the 19th century. Then it was taken up by the mechanical arts, photography and cinema. The great film manifestos of the 1920s argue for the idenfication of the eye of the camera and the eye of the filmmaker. The same thing is happening now with the new technologies.
Above all, these recording techniques are contemporaneous with an art of testament. We are presented with acts of witness devoid of fictional inscription in history. Whether these bodies are Bosnian, Chchen, Rwandan or whatever, the art that exhibits them offers nothing more than a pure and simple folklore of misery, making them a mere sociology of themselves.
Clearly there are two opposing approaches. One creates fictional bodies that present signs constituting a fiction which marks their inscription in history, and then there is the pproach for which each category of interpretation of the world has its witnesses. The art of witness that you mention presupposes that are there are witnesses to all the suffering. This is a real reversal. The witness is supposed to be there already to testify to an idea or category that is in itself no more than a document. This art is close to the banal management of information. Paradoxically, this tendency is supported by the ost-Auschwitz discourse on the witness which says that ofter the camps there can longer be any art, only witnesses. Now witnesses can either say what we already know they are going to say: I am the witness, or they can write, paint and film and find a form of fiction. The writing of Robert Antelme’s L’Espéce humain [a personal account of the Nazi camps–Trans.] has nothing to do with the aesthetic of the unrepresentable and a lot to do with Madame Bovary. A witness is either a simple illustration required by the moment or a person who speaks, acts and produces art.
At the same time as this art of record, we are seeing a return to the idea of utopia, but in the form of all-out integration of the social and the institution. Do you not think that this is an inverted utopia, the contrary aspect of the revolution being realized in an unlimited fusion of art, work, community, humanitarianism and the market, in which the means of production are absorbed by consumerism, ending up with the end of history-as-promised-land?
This affirmation of the autonomy of art at the same time as its identification with a way of life is a structural contradiction of the aesthetic regime of art. This identification can take many different forms, form a futuristic, revolutionary mode to that of critical intervention, the work of memory or commercial aestheticizing, etc. We need to get away from the pathos of utopia, of the end or banalization of utopia.
Translation, C. Penward.
(1) The title of a book by Phillipe Sollers on this question.